The Lived Religion of the Nation Of Islam

Kelly Baker

One of the many books I picked up to read recently was Edward Curtis's Black Muslim Religion in the U.S., 1960-1975. The book proves to be a wonderful introduction to the diversity of practice with the Nation of Islam as well as the movement's engagement with Islam, Christianity, and larger culture. University of North Carolina Press describes the book:

Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam came to America's attention in the 1960s and 1970s as a radical separatist African American social and political group. But the movement was also a religious one. Edward E. Curtis IV offers the first comprehensive examination of the rituals, ethics, theologies, and religious narratives of the Nation of Islam, showing how the movement combined elements of Afro-Eurasian Islamic traditions with African American traditions to create a new form of Islamic faith.

Considering everything from bean pies to religious cartoons, clothing styles to prayer rituals, Curtis explains how the practice of Islam in the movement included the disciplining and purifying of the black body, the reorientation of African American historical consciousness toward the Muslim world, an engagement with both mainstream Islamic texts and the prophecies of Elijah Muhammad, and the development of a holistic approach to political, religious, and social liberation. Curtis's analysis pushes beyond essentialist ideas about what it means to be Muslim and offers a view of the importance of local processes in identity formation and the appropriation of Islamic traditions.

I found Curtis's attention to material manifestations of NOI to be the most suggestive about their theology and strategies of resistance. Curtis relies upon cartoons, dress, food, print culture, and school lessons and texts to create a portrait of the movement that moves beyond the stereotypical presentation of NOI as a movement filled with racist and bizarre theologies that was somehow not Islamic. He explores the theologies of the movement, but more importantly, he shows how believers lived their faith and created a new form of Islam. By uplifting the material religion of NOI, Curtis illuminates how believers navigated the strict lifestyle and created their own renderings of the movement. For example, he discusses in detail the lengthy clothing requirements for women, which signified modesty and piety, and the labor of the women to construct these uniforms. However, women interpreted these guidelines in different ways that did not always conform to the strict renderings of gender in the movement. Women staked their claims of authority and spiritual leadership in how they wore their clothes. Food also became a battleground between leaders and believers. Strict dietary guidelines and recipes defined what should be eaten to cleanse the physical and the spiritual, but often believers tweaked the recipes to create better tasting food. What Curtis shows masterfully is not only a clear presentation of the system of NOI but also a balanced view of the lived religion of NOI adherents.


John G. Turner said…
Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I regularly teach the Autobiography of Malcolm X and need to read this to further educate myself. I'm also looking forward to Manning Marable's (spelling could be off) forthcoming biography of Malcolm X, drawing on some missing autobiography chapters. Between these two works, we should be much better equipped to teach units on Malcolm X / the autobiography.

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